Posted by: cctracker | November 25, 2012


What would Lincoln do?

A lot of people are asking that question these days, including the panel on Meet the Press this morning.  The question has some powerful political potential for our country at this moment in history.

The immediate credit for the question goes, of course, to  “Lincoln” the new Steven Spielburg movie based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book  Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Incredibly, the movie lives up to the overwhelming demands of its audaciously simple title.

Think about it: How many American faces captured in photographs have become truly universal–revered by nearly all of us– as sacred American cultural icons? And isn’t Lincoln’s face the most sacred of them all?  Haven’t we all looked upon that face, careworn by  the deepest sadness and creased with unimaginable burdens, and secretly longed to see him miraculously speak and move so that we could know with our physical senses as well as with our hearts and minds that such a person actually lived?

Somehow, Daniel Day-Lewis‘ and Spielberg deliver the miracle.  We see a man with a real body lie down on the floor next to his sleeping young son, curl himself into a chair, plod awkwardly down a long corridor and we understand that he was one of us. We see a face, many times in closeup, and though it is not as grotesquely etched with pain and fatigue as the photographs, we feel as if he is there, returning our gaze. We hear the thin, strained music of a voice telling jokes and stories, using curse words, making speeches and delivering passionate commands and we  feel as if we are hearing the spirit of the man –a spirit we knew until now only in printed words or text read aloud by someone else– at last expressed in the audible words of a very real and particular human being.

I’ll leave to others the task of critiquing the movie. It is a Spielberg film so there is plenty of smoke, dramatic back lighting, romantic affirmation of good and evil and a strong narrative through-line. And since it tries to deal with the uncapturable complexity of real history, it distorts time, places, events and characters, perhaps to a degree that justifiably offends those with a scholar’s grasp of the history around its central event: the passing of the 13th Amendment.

But if you are at all like me, even more than the power of Day-Lewis’ performance and despite any of its weaknesses, this movie keeps bringing you back to today, to the public life and politics of our own embattled 2nd term President,  to our own profoundly dysfunctional Congress. And it asks: What would Lincoln do?

The immediate political form of the question might be: What would Lincoln do about the “Fiscal Cliff?”  But just behind that loom the myriad other questions that divide us as a nation or keep us up worrying late at night: What would he do about the national debt? About entitlement reform? Tax reform? How about the shrinking middle class, energy policy, global warming? Policy toward Iran, Israel and Palestine, Afghanistan, China?

We all know that finding a workable way forward on each of these individual questions will require immense effort, mind-numbingly complex research and discovery and horrifically difficult negotiations between competing parties and interests. And I think the majority of Americans know that this work will demand virtues like persistence and discipline.

But Lincoln’s life, and Spielberg’s movie, tell us some other things we don’t seem to know–or don’t want to face– about what Lincoln might do if he were President today and what we  need to be prepared to do if we are to meet the challenges of our times.

Lincoln was indeed a magnificent moral and spiritual leader of the United States worthy of our statues and our reverence. But he was at the same time a politician who accepted the unavoidable complexity and ambiguity of the human process of political progress. He compromised not only his ideological commitments, but his personal moral standards to steer the ship of state toward what he believed would be a more just and humane future. He subjected himself and his family to irresponsible  stresses and misery. When the vote on the 13th Amendment was nearly derailed, he lied to save it. He gave orders he knew would result in the massacre of thousands at the service of questionable military ends. But in the face of all of this impossible and unavoidable ambiguity and grief, he nevertheless moved us forward, his gaze ultimately fixed on what he believed was the necessary, good and moral end. And he cajoled, inspired and commanded  as many of those around him as he could to do the same.

So, do we really want to know what Lincoln would do? What Lincoln asks us to face?

Are we all willing to admit both hard truths about our economy: that in the last 40 years our public policies have allowed the wealthy to succeeded at the expense of the poor and middle class, and that our government is too large and wasteful? Are we willing to support a politician who tells us both and risks putting forward initiatives to go forward on both?

Are we ready to admit that we are stealing financial security from the same children we say we love and want to serve in our pious prayers and  rhetoric? If so, are we ready to publicly support, even demand that our political leaders reform Medicare and Social Security to delay, shrink or even eliminate our own (or our parents)  benefits?

Are we ready to admit that while science may have a little more fine detail to sew up, the planet is certainly warming dramatically with potentially catastrophic consequences for nearly a billion of us, most of whom are among the poorest and most vulnerable and that human beings are very likely the cause? If so are we willing to support the politicians who dare even to mention this reality much less cajole, inspired or demand  any of us to take meaningful–and no doubt very costly–action?

These questions all depend upon us meeting a less tangible, interior challenge. A spiritual challenge. Are we ready to challenge an underlying, interior craving for comfortable, self-serving answers? Are we willing to challenge ourselves and then our friends, families neighbors, co-workers and fellow citizens not only to move beyond our own ideological commitments toward real, practical problem solving aimed at the public good, but also to accept that our political leaders must deal with a political context at least as ambiguous and complex as Lincoln’s? Are we willing to remember that Lincoln was mocked and hated by hundreds of thousands while he served and that many of us may have been among them had we lived in that America?

We have our own crises today. We have our own embattled second term President and our own dysfunctional congress. We also face our own individual and communal temptations to see only the answers that suit us, that feel right, that cost us little.

It is a very good time, indeed, for us to ask: What would Lincoln do?


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